Senators got a chance to publicly grill Ajit Pai this morning for the first time since he was named FCC chairman, during an oversight hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee.
The hearing was a strangely quiet affair given how much is at stake inside the FCC. Senators only occasionally brought up net neutrality or plans to spike internet privacy protections, instead focusing largely on the commission's more bipartisan and banal duties, like figuring out spectrum sharing and ways to deploy broadband to rural areas.
Pai opened the meeting far from the controversies, too. He took a minute to condemn the shooting of Garmin engineers in Kansas, where he grew up, saying that "words cannot capture how this has hurt those of us, particular those of Indian descent, who call Kansas home."
His other remarks focused largely on promoting broadband deployment, reiterating a core goal he's stated time and again since taking over the commission.
Senators seemed happy to focus most of their questions on these issues. But throughout the meeting's two-and-a-half hour span, big ticket items did pop up here and there. And in a few cases, Pai made commitments or comments that help to illustrate where the commission is going. Here are the highlights:
1. Pai committed to having the FCC assess whether it should review the AT&T–Time Warner merger
Pai pulled out his stock line on whether the FCC will review AT&T's Time Warner acquisition — that, as he understands it, the merger is designed to avoid FCC review, so he probably won't be taking a look.
But Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) wanted to know if Pai had confirmed what AT&T's been telling him. "Have you asked the FCC staff to conduct an independent legal analysis to confirm the FCC has no role?" Schatz asked.
Pai said he hadn't. And when pressed, he agreed to order an investigation and present the findings to the committee.
2. The prison phone market is “broken”
Pai keeps saying he only wants the commission to take action against an industry when there's a serious market failure, but we really haven't been able to tell what he believes a market failure looks like. Finally, we have a sign.
In response to a question from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Pai said that he believes "this marketplace is broken" and that the commission has the authority to adopt rate caps and regulate fees in certain cases to deal with the exorbitant prices that inmate are charged to make a phone call. He also said that it took the commission "way too long" to take action on this issue — rules were passed in 2015, but are currently held up in court.
It’s not clear what Pai plans to do, though, since he’s stopped defending the rules in court and hasn’t put out a new proposal. So while his new statement on the marketplace sounds strong, it’s reminiscent of his prior position: saying something should be done, but not being part of a solution.
3. Pai loves the First Amendment but doesn't want to start a fight with Trump
Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) pressed Pai for an opinion on the media, pointing out that he has direct oversight of companies that President Trump routinely criticizes. In particular, they honed in on Trump's comments that media outlets are the "enemy of the American people" and asked Pai if he agreed.
But Pai dodged, declining to assert that the media is not the enemy of the American people and instead arguing that he's long been a supporter of the First Amendment and that he believes "every American enjoys the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution."
It was far from a full-throated defense of the press, with Pai clearly trying to avoid contradicting the president, who he met with on Monday and who just yesterday nominated him for a second term at the FCC. "I don't want to wade into the larger political debates," Pai responded.
4. This convoluted net neutrality metaphor makes sense
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI): I know net neutrality sounds great and in trying to convey why [it] harms investment and innovation, I've come up with an analogy. I kind of want to run this by you [to see] if this is pretty accurate.
Let's say a group of neighbors want to build a bridge over a creek so they can cross over and talk to each other a lot. So it's really for the neighborhood, maybe a dozen people. But then they find out the local government is going to require that [the] bridge is open to the entire community of a million people. No prioritization whatsoever. They don't get to cross first to see their neighbor. A million people can come onto their property, ruin their lawns, and walk over that bridge. Isn't that kind of a similar analogy? Isn't that a pretty good analogy in terms of what net neutrality is all about? ... Tell me where that analogy's maybe not accurate.
Pai: Senator, you've put your finger on one of the core concerns, which is that all of us favor a free and open internet where consumers can access lawful content of their choice, we also want to incentivize the construction of these networks which requires massive capital expenditures ... our goal is obviously to make sure, to use your analogy, those bridges continue to be built, continue to be maintained and upgraded as traffic modernizes over time.
Johnson: In my example, I don't think too many neighbors would chip in the money to build that bridge when they realize we're not ever gonna be able to use it.
Johnson: Or certainly not priority on it.
5. Local media consolidation is a real possibility
FCC rules currently prohibit, with few exceptions, companies from owning newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations that operate in the same market. Pai said "there's literally no evidence" to support the prohibition and that scrapping it could help local media outlets that are struggling.
"If it is more efficient for them to collect news together and distribute it on different platforms, that could help them stay in business and provide a vital source of information for localities," Pai said. He added that the media ownership rules are being discussed within the commission.
Correction Mach 8th, 4:40PM ET: this article initially referred to Senator Udall as “(D-MN),” when he is actually “(D-NM).”